July 1992

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Interurban Electric

Trolley Cars


Robert G. Koch

Local popular historian, Arch Merrill, described the age of interurban trolley cars as "three decades of rolling thunder, when the big cars sped through the countryside, rattling dishes on pantry shelves."

A. J. Furnas recalls how the new wonder—abundant, powerful, transportable electricity—set the stage for such cars to compete "with steam for fast light freight and short-range passengers. On new trackage, self-propelled interurbans…fann[ed] out from major centers in the Northeast, …Midwest and …West Coast. They were heavier than streetcars, with elephantine foreheads, locomotive-style cowcatchers and sizeable freight compartments for milk cans, crates of eggs, bundles of the city newspapers and spare parts for farm machinery…Part of the financing [of these lines] came of selling shares to farmers and local bankers [who benefited, respectively, from quicker milk deliveries to city creameries and shorter business trips to the city]." (These claims seem borne out in Western New York town histories like 1989's splendid volume on the town of Seneca.)

Furnas continues, "Wherever available, interurbans made striking changes. In the Massachusetts Berkshires, [novelist] Edith Wharton saw them easing communication 'between the scattered villages and the bigger towns…[which] had libraries, theatres and Y. M. C. A. halls to which the youth of the hills could descend for recreation.'…[And American historian] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., has ranked the interurban with the rural telephone among the technological changes that, by de-isolating the farmer, cooled his Populistic wrath at the big city."

In 1915 cartoonist Fontaine Fox began the 40-year run of "The Toonervile Trolley" series with its cantankerous motorman, and his passengers, like "Mickey (himself) McGuire, the Little Scorpions, Powerful Katrinka, and Effie Hogg, "the fattest woman in six counties."

That commuting to the city from the growing suburbs and nearby towns was another spur to the growth of interurban systems is suggested by the fact that the idea for developing the Rochester & Eastern Rapid Railway is credited to a prominent Rochester attorney living in Pittsford. Its nearly 40 miles of track linked Rochester with Geneva, via Pittsford, Bushnell's Basin, Victor, Canandaigua, and Seneca Castle—the Route of the Orange Limited. It could cover the route in an hour and three-quarters.

In 1904, the year it began, one of its electric cars, racing on tracks parallel to the Auburn Branch of the New York Central from Pittsford to Victor, handily beat a five-car steam-driven train. (In 1912 the New York Central, which already owned the Rochester Railway Co. and other urban systems across the state, bought the Rochester & Eastern Rapid and consolidated it with the others in the New York State Railways.)

The Orange Limited brought Rochesterians to the summer glories of the Sonnenberg Gardens or lake steamers on Canandaigua and Seneca Lakes. It brought Genevans to Rochester for theater, concerts, and shopping. It dropped the latest editions of the daily newspapers at Victor or Seneca Castle. Special excursions took crowds to cheer the traditional football rivalry between Hobart College and the University of Rochester.

The line ran its fast schedule pretty much on time, but not without complications, like the 1912 Erie Canal washout between Bushnell's Basin and Pittsford, or from its customers, as recalled in William R. Gordon's 1953 history. "Overhead at the Victor Station one June morning when a trolley arrived a bit late; 'Step lively, step lively,' said the young conductor to a young lady about to board the car. 'Wait just a minute,' she replied, 'I want to kiss my sister.' Said the conductor, impatiently, "Come on, come on. I'll attend to that myself.'"

In 1906 another interurban, the Rochester, Syracuse & Eastern Railroad, began its quarter century run. It scooted out of the city, thundered through Fairport, Egypt, Macedon, Newark, Lyons, Clyde, Savannah, and Port Byron, ending in Syracuse two hours and 50 minutes later. In the 1920s fifteen minutes was cut from even that time.

Still, as Lloyd Klos recalls in one of his Resident's Recollections, "…the local architect J. Foster Warner engaged in races with the R & S trolleys. He'd drive up to the University Avenue station in his open touring car, hail the motorman of a Syracuse-bound car and say, "I'll see you in Syracuse.' And off he went, his patrician beard flying in the breeze, jouncing over the unimproved roads until he'd arrive in Syracuse to greet the motorman upon the latter's arrival."

But, "Around Los Angeles," according to J. C. Furnas, "Huntington's Pacific Electric system served forty-two incorporated cities with 35 miles "and others beyond"…Schedule time from Los Angeles to Redondo was forty-five minutes[,] less than half today's expectation in congested traffic. Nor did interurbans add to the smog that now plagues Paradise."

The Rochester & Eastern made its final runs on July 31, 1930; the Rochester & Syracuse line on June 12, 1931, and, according to Lloyd Klos, "The last interurban line in New York State outside New York City, the Jamestown, Westfield and Northwestern, hung on grimly until November 30, 1947. It must have been some system: a phrase applied to it was, 'The Jesus Wept and No wonder.'"

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
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